The Nation's Pulse

Sweet Land of What?

Civic literacy in crisis on Constitution Day.

By 9.17.07

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Anticipating Constitution Day (Monday, September 17th), the First Amendment Center has released the results of its annual survey assessing our support for constitutionally protected freedoms. While I was pleased to learn that support for freedom of religion, speech, and the press -- as a matter of general principle -- remains stratospherically high, I was troubled by some of the results.

Consider this, for example: while a heartening 64% of the respondents could name freedom of speech as one of the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment, less than 20% -- yes, that's less than 20% -- could name any of the others. And if someone can't without prompting say that the First Amendment protects freedom of religion, how could we expect him or her to remember that there are establishment and free exercise clauses, or to understand their implications.

Suffice it to say that on this front -- call it civic literacy -- we educators have our work cut out for us.

When you move from the general principles to the details -- where the rubber hits the road -- things get worse. While a healthy 93% of respondents regard freedom of the press as "essential" or "important," many of them (40%) think that the government can require broadcasters to report positive news in exchange for being permitted to use the public airwaves.

Some version of the Fairness Doctrine, abandoned by the FCC in 1985, garners the support of over 60% of the respondents. Requiring television and radio stations to offer liberals and conservatives equal time may seem fair -- we all learned to share in preschool, didn't we? -- doing so would actually limit the range of opinions available to us on the airwaves. Fearing that everyone and his brother would demand equal time, broadcasters would shun controversy.

But it gets even worse: roughly the same proportion of respondents would extend the Fairness Doctrine to newspapers. While there's at least a case to be made that radio and television stations can be regulated -- which isn't the same as "should be regulated -- because they're given the opportunity to profit from the use of a "scarce" public medium, newspapers are different. They're private entities that do not and should not require the permission of the government to operate.

If I don't like the editorial stances of my local paper, I can find or found a more congenial source of news and opinion. The response, in other words, to a perception of news and editorial bias is competition, which, with the proliferation of news and opinion sources, we have in spades. If you're a conservative and don't like the "MSM" (mainstream media), there's Rush Limbaugh, redstate.org, Power Line, and The American Spectator, to name just a few. If you're a liberal who thinks that the New York Times doesn't challenge the Bush Administration with sufficient vigor, there's the DailyKos, TPM Cafe, and so on.

That's why, in the end, I'm troubled by the gap between our general and particular opinions about First Amendment freedoms. We're devoted to them as "essential" or "important," but only until our schoolyard notions of fairness kick in. Then we're quick to call in the nanny state to make everything equal.

Now, I'm one of the first to affirm that our rights can't be absolute, that "ordered liberty" requires that they be "civilized." What this survey seems to indicate, however, isn't a nuanced understanding of the requirements of ordered liberty, but rather a reflexive (and -- dare I say? -- juvenile) preference for fairness and equality, even at the expense of a reasonable liberty.

As I said, we educators have our work cut out for us.

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About the Author

Joseph M. Knippenberg teaches at Oglethorpe University.